Jane Martin, the much-produced, Pulitzer-nominated author of some dozen-odd plays, almost certainly does not exist. At least not in the conventional sense; though tantalizingly pseudonymous for more than two decades, Martin’s identity is something of an open secret in theater circles. Anonymity may, in fact, be Martin’s greatest asset as a playwright: In of-the-moment works such as “Keely and Du” and “Good Boys,” having its premiere at the Guthrie Lab, Martin enters the salient political and ethical arguments of the day as a sort of disembodied vox populi. By eluding ethnic, geographic and even gender designation, Martin slips the constraints — and, one could argue, responsibilities — of authorship. You might say that if Jane Martin had not invented herself, it would be necessary for her to exist.
Like “Keely and Du,” “Good Boys” is largely structured as a dialogue between two characters on opposite sides of a messy, divisive social issue (in the former it was abortion; here, school violence). Some eight years after a horrific school massacre, the father of the shooter (Stephen Yoakam) happens to meet the father of one of his son’s victims (Glynn Turman) in a Florida park.
It’s clear from the outset that both men’s lives have been ruined by the incident: The wan and slumping father of the killer is first seen swigging from a liquor flask; the other father’s wounds, though perhaps more subtly disguised, prove no less deep. Though they begin with idle chatter about baseball, the two move quickly to the Gordian knot that binds them. “We are prisoners in the puzzle of this thing,” the victim’s father says.
There’s the faint whiff of a Barbara Walters special in this setup. Yet “Good Boys” is grounded in specificity, and the two fathers reveal themselves in meandering, sometimes overlapping conversation. “Good Boys” is, in fact, less concerned with the reasons for school violence — which are, perhaps, impenetrable — than the open question of parental responsibility — the sins of the sons visited upon the fathers, to misquote Numbers.
And that question is not a legal or even an ethical one: After numerous civil suits against him, the shooter’s father hides behind the false absolution of the courts. The issue in play in “Good Boys” is, rather, a moral one: To what extent must we accept culpability for the transgressions of our children?
If “Good Boys” poses familiar, insoluble questions, this production, directed by Jon Jory, does at least grapple intelligently with them without slipping into didacticism. Jory, until last year artistic director of the Actors Theater of Louisville, is the leading interpreter of Martin’s work (a fact that would be neatly explained by the widely held assumption that they are the same person). Here, he conducts a spare, naturalistic staging that gives precedence to the play’s dramatic thrust.
The simple set, by Neil Patel, while consisting of nothing more than a few wilting tropical plants, manages to communicate the decaying purgatory in which both characters exist — while also slyly suggesting the frame of a television screen.
“Good Boys” must, however, rise or fall on the strength of its principal actors. As the fathers, Yoakam and Turman give brave, emotionally raw performances. Yoakam’s character, certainly the less sympathetic of the two, spends much of the play curled into a defensive position, as though bracing for an expected blow. Turman is initially the aggressor; wiry and taut with potential violence, he feigns chummy familiarity in order to catch the other man in carefully laid verbal snares.
Watching Turman thrust and parry, we get the sense that his character has rehearsed this scene for years; he spits sentences at the other father as though they were bullets. Yet, as Yoakam and Turman clearly communicate, neither man has the resources to deal with the situation.
Perhaps because the battering duel between the two fathers is so much the heart of “Good Boys,” the shooting itself, played in flashback, seems strangely beside the point. While well-acted (the shooter is played by Casey Greig, the victim by Marlon Morrison), the scene has less of a cathartic impact than it might if simply related by the fathers. The subject of “Good Boys” is, after all, less the fact of violence than the inconsolable, ambiguous grief that follows it.